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Post-Soviet Petrostates Repressive and Unstable

(Washington, DC--January 26, 2007) The petrostates that have arisen on the territory of the former Soviet Union are becoming increasingly repressive and unstable, according to two experts on the region. Christopher Walker, Director of Studies at Freedom House, and Daniel Kimmage, Regional Analyst for RFE/RL described for an RFE/RL audience how increased wealth from oil and gas extraction had increased repression and political instability in Russia, Kazakhstan, Turkmenistan and Azerbaijan.

Walker said the problems faced by these countries with resource-led economies resemble to the problems of earlier petrostates such as Saudi Arabia and the energy rich states of Africa. In these countries, Walker said, the "resource curse" has fueled the growth of unresponsive state bureaucracies, a small group of elites controls the wealth, and little economic reform has been carried out because the political opposition can be co-opted using the resource as "fiscal pacification." Walker questioned whether Russia, Kazakhstan, Turkmenistan and Azerbaijan can "escape" this pattern, where "energy-led development" retards economic growth, economic diversification, and fails to lower poverty levels because the financial windfall from oil and gas exports arrives before the countries have developed democratic institutions of governance. Lacking "democratic accountability," Walker said "repression is taking root" in these states, adding that "the democratic states [of Europe] need a coordinated approach" in dealing with Russia, Kazakhstan and Azerbaijan to counter-act such tendencies.

Kimmage addressed the implications for regime stability in these petrostates, pointing out that "baggage from the Soviet experience" also affects their development. Because of the "perverse incentive structure [of petrostates]," Kimmage said, history shows that "both boom and bust cycles" for energy exports "can be destabilizing to petrostates." Although earlier studies have identified the existence of a "durable authoritarianism" in a number of petrostates, Kimmage said one should "look at the prior politics" of a country -- before its oil wealth boom -- as a more accurate way of predicting the stability of a regime. Kimmage noted that the "crackdown" on alternative voices started in Russia, Kazakhstan, and Turkmenistan before their oil boom began, and has only strengthened with their increased wealth. At the same time, Kimmage said, "crises are looming that could de-stabilize" these regimes -- for example, the current succession crisis in Turkmenistan; questions surrounding the 2008 Russian presidential election; and lingering conflicts among the Kazakh elite, which surfaced unexpectedly last summer after the apparent political murder of Altynbek Sarsenbayev, a former Minister of Information.

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